Sissinghurst Castle Garden

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Sissinghurst Castle Garden
View across garden to fields. Small redbrick cottage to left.
"The most famous twentieth century garden in England."[1]
Type Garden
Location Sissinghurst
Coordinates 51°06′57″N 0°34′53″E / 51.1157°N 0.5815°E / 51.1157; 0.5815Coordinates: 51°06′57″N 0°34′53″E / 51.1157°N 0.5815°E / 51.1157; 0.5815
Architect Vita Sackville-West / Harold Nicolson
Governing body National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Sissinghurst Castle
Designated 1 May 1986
Reference no. 1000181
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: West Range at Sissinghurst Castle
Designated 9 June 1952
Reference no. 1346285
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Tower and Walls 30 yards East of the West Range at Sissinghurst Castle
Designated 9 June 1952
Reference no. 1084163
Listed Building – Grade II*
Official name: The Priest's House at Sissinghurst Castle
Designated 20 June 1967
Reference no. 1346286
Listed Building – Grade II*
Official name: The South Cottage
Designated 20 June 1967
Reference no. 1084164
Sissinghurst Castle Garden is located in Kent
Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Location of Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, at Sissinghurst in the Weald of Kent in England, was created in the early 1930s by Vita Sackville-West, poet and writer, and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat. It is among the most famous gardens in England and is designated a Grade I listed structure. The garden comprises a series of ten "rooms", and was one of the earliest examples of this gardening style. Over seventy years after Vita and Harold created "a garden where none was",[2] Sissinghurst remains a major influence on horticultural thought and practice.

The origins of the present castle remains are a house begun in the 1530s by Sir John Baker and expanded by him c.1550. In 1554/5 Sir John's daughter Cecily married Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset. Construction was continued by Sir John's son Richard, who inherited in 1558. Richard built a vast new house, in a short period of time, and entertained Elizabeth I there in 1573. By the 18th century the family's fortunes had waned, and the house, renamed Sissinghurst Castle, was leased to the government to act as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Seven Years' War. The prisoners caused great damage to the structure and by the 19th century, following large-scale demolition and use as a workhouse, Sissinghurst had declined to the status of a farmstead.

In 1930, the estate was bought by Vita Sackville-West. Vita and Harold were seeking an alternative refuge as their home Long Barn was threatened by development. Sissinghurst held a strong dynastic appeal for Vita: having seen her ancestral home Knole pass out of her hands in 1928, another ancient house of the Sackvilles exercised an irresistible attraction. Over the next 30 years she and Harold turned a farmstead of "squalor and disorder" into one of the world's most famous gardens. Following Vita's death in 1962, the estate was gifted to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It is one of the Trust's most popular properties, with nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017.


Early history

The site is ancient; "hurst" is the Saxon term for an enclosed wood. Nigel Nicolson, in his 1964 guide, Sissinghurst Castle: An Illustrated History, records the earliest owners as the de Saxinherst family, followed by the de Berhams.[3] Nicolson suggested that the de Berhams constructed a moated house in stone, of an appearance similar to that of Ightham Mote, which was later replaced by a brick manor.[4] More recent studies, including that by Nigel's son, Adam, doubt the existence of the earliest stone manor, suggesting that the brick house, or perhaps a timber construction of slightly earlier date, occupying the corner of the orchard nearest the moat, was the earliest house on the site.[5] Edward I is reputed to have stayed at this house in 1305.[6]

Rise, decline, collapse: c.1490–1930

Model of Sissinghurst Castle in 1560. From right to left - gatehouse, tower, brick courtyard, wooden courtyard, moat from and left
Sir Richard Baker's house circa 1560

In 1490 the de Berhams sold the manor of Sissinghurst to a Thomas Baker of Cranbrook.[7] The Bakers were cloth producers and in the following century, through marriage and careers at court and in the law, Baker's successors greatly expanded their wealth and their estates in Kent and Sussex.[8] In the 1530s Sir John Baker, one of Henry VIII's Privy Councillors, built a new brick gatehouse, the current West Range.[9][a] His son, Sir Richard Baker, undertook a massive expansion in the 1560s. The Tower is of his rebuilding, and formed the entrance to a very large courtyard house, of which the South Cottage and some walls are the only other remaining fragments.[11] Sir Richard surrounded the mansion with an enclosed 700-acre (2.8 km2) deer park and in August 1573 entertained Queen Elizabeth I at Sissinghurst.[12]

After the collapse of the Baker family fortunes in the late 17th century, the building declined in importance. Horace Walpole visited in 1752: "yesterday, after twenty mishaps, we got to Sissinghurst for dinner. There is a park in ruins and a house in ten times greater ruins".[13] During the Seven Years' War, it became a prisoner-of-war camp.[14][b] The historian Edward Gibbon, then serving in the Hampshire militia, was stationed there and recorded "the inconceivable dirtiness of the season, the country and the spot".[16] It was during its use as a camp for French prisoners that the name Sissinghurst Castle was adopted; although it was never a castle, there is debate as to the extent to which the house was a fortified manor.[17] In 2017/2018, an important collection of historical graffiti undertaken by some of the 3,000 prisoners was uncovered beneath 20th-century plaster.[18]

Around 1800, the estate having been purchased by the Mann family,[19] the majority of Sir Richard's Elizabethan house was demolished; the stone and brick were reused in buildings throughout the locality.[20] The castle later became a workhouse for the Cranbrook Union, after which it was used to provide accommodation for farm labourers.[21] In 1928, the castle was put up for sale for a price of £12,000, but attracted no interest for some two years.[22]

Vita and Harold: 1930–1968

Vita Sackville-West

portrait of woman hanging above a fireplace in a wood-panelled room
Vita's portrait by Philip de László hanging in the Big Room

Vita Sackville-West, poet, author and gardener, was born at Knole, some 25 miles from Sissinghurst, on 9 March 1892.[23] The great Elizabethan mansion, home of her ancestors and denied to her through primogeniture,[24][c] held enormous significance for Vita throughout her life.[26][27] Sissinghurst was a substitute and its familial connections were of great importance to her.[28][29] The Table of Descent set out in her book, Knole And The Sackvilles, records the marriage of Thomas Sackville to Cecily, daughter of Sir John Baker of Sissinghurst Castle, Cranford, Kent in 1554.[30] In 1913 Vita married Harold Nicolson, a diplomat at the start of his career.[31] Their relationship was unconventional, both pursuing multiple, mainly same-sex affairs throughout. Vita's romance with Violet Trefusis caused the greatest crisis in their marriage; Duff Cooper recorded the London gossip in a diary entry, "[Violet] has behaved very badly and it appears she is now living in Sapphic sin with Vita Nicolson".[32] Having determined to break with Violet in 1921, Vita became ever more withdrawn[33] – she wrote to her mother that she would like "to live alone in a tower with her books", an ambition she achieved in the tower at Sissinghurst[34] where only her dogs were regularly admitted.[35][d] From 1946 until a few years before her death, Vita wrote a gardening column for The Observer, in which, although she never referred directly to Sissinghurst,[37] she discussed a wide array of horticultural issues.[38][e] In an article, Some Flowers, which was republished in In Your Garden, Vita discussed the challenge of writing effectively about flowers; "I discovered this only when I started to do so. Before... I found myself losing my temper with the nauseating phraseology... and sickly vocabulary employed".[40] In 1955, in recognition of her achievement at Sissinghurst, Vita was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Veitch Medal.[41] Her biographer Victoria Glendinning considers Sissinghurst Vita's "one magnificent act of creation".[42]

"One might reasonably have hoped to inherit century-old hedges of yew, some gnarled mulberries, a cedar or two, a pleached alley, flagged walls, a mound. Instead there was nothing but weed, rough grass, a shabby eyesore of a greenhouse in the wrong place, broken fencing, wired chicken runs, squalor and slovenly disorder everywhere."

–Vita's first impressions of Sissinghurst.[35]

Harold Nicolson

Harold Nicolson, diplomat, author, diarist and politician, was born in Tehran on 21 September 1886.[43] Following his father into the Diplomatic Corps, he served as a junior member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War,[44] and returned to Iran as Counsellor in 1925.[45] In 1929 he resigned from the Foreign Office[46] to pursue a career in journalism,[47] editing the Londoner's Diary for Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard.[48] This proved unsuccessful, as did his subsequent political career, which saw him move from Oswald Mosley's New Party[49] to Clement Attlee's Labour Party.[50] Throughout, he maintained a detailed diary. His entry for 4 April 1930, records, "Vita telephones to say she has seen the ideal house – a place in Kent, near Cranbrook, a sixteenth-century castle".[51]

Building a garden

Vita and Harold found Sissinghurst in April 1930,[22] after Dorothy Wellesley, their near neighbour and a former lover of Vita's, saw the estate for sale.[52] They had become increasingly concerned by threats from encroaching development to their property Long Barn, near Sevenoaks, Kent.[52][f] Their offer on Sissinghurst was accepted on 6 May[55] and the castle and the farm around it were bought for £12,375.[56] The house had no electricity, running water nor drains, and the garden was a wasteland.[52] Clearing the site took almost three years but by 1939 the garden was largely complete, with the exception of the White Garden. Harold was responsible for the design and layout, while Vita, at the head of her team of gardeners, undertook the planting. Simon Jenkins, the architectural writer, describes Harold's design as "post-Picturesque, a garden not as an imitation of nature but as imitation of a house", and suggests his thinking was much influenced by Lawrence Johnston's garden at Hidcote.[35] Vita's approach was plant-centred, within the constraints of Harold's plan, "profusion, even extravagance and exuberance, within confines of the utmost linear severity".[57]

statue on a plinth in front of a green hedge. A youth in classical dress leans against a tree trunk
The statuary at Sissinghurst was not always of the highest quality. Anne Scott-James describes this one of Dionysus as looking "particularly depressed".[58][g]

Harold and Vita converted the buildings scattered around the site to become their home. Part of the long brick gatehouse range from Sir John Baker's construction of c.1533 became the library, or Big Room;[12] the tower gatehouse dating from Richard Baker's rebuilding in 1560–1570 became Vita's sitting room, study and sanctuary.[12] The Priest's House was home to their sons Ben and Nigel, and held the family dining room, while the South Cottage housed their bedrooms and Harold's writing room.[60]

Vita and Harold first opened the garden to the paying public for two days in mid-1938. Thereafter, the opening hours were gradually increased.[61] Vita came greatly to enjoy her encounters with visitors, known as "shillingses" on account of the entrances fees they deposited in a bowl at the entrance.[62] She described her relationship with them in a 1939 article in the New Statesman; "between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy". Harold was known to be less welcoming.[61]

War and after

Harold's diary entry for 26 September 1938 records the tense European atmosphere at the time of the Munich Crisis. "They are making the big room at Sissinghurst gas-proof. I know one who will not be there. He will be in his bed minus gas-mask and with all the windows open."[63] He drove down to Sissinghurst on the day war was declared, encountering an angry women who shook her fist at him and declared the war was the fault of the rich and finding on his arrival at the castle that Vita had lowered the Sackville flag from the tower.[64] During the Second World War, Sissinghurst saw much of the Battle of Britain, which was mainly fought over the Weald of Kent and the English Channel. Harold's diary entry for 2 September 1940 reads, "a tremendous raid in the morning and the whole upper air buzzes and zooms with the noise of aeroplanes. There are many fights over our sunlight fields".[65][h]

In 1956, the BBC proposed making a television programme at Sissinghurst. Vita was in favour, but Harold was opposed. "I have a vague prejudice against (a) exposing my intimate affections to the public gaze; (b) indulging in private theatricals."[67] Harold later withdrew his objections, but Vita declined the BBC's offer to please him.[67] In 1959 CBS broadcast a four-way discussion from the dining room at the Priest's House between Harold, Ed Murrow the journalist, and the diplomats Chip Bohlen and Clare Boothe Luce. Vita intensely disliked the result.[68]

Vita died in the first-floor bedroom of the Priest's House on 2 June 1962.[69] Harold recorded her death in his diary, "Ursula[i] is with Vita. At about 1.5 she observes that Vita is breathing heavily, and then suddenly is silent. She dies without fear or self-reproach. I pick some of her favourite flowers and lay them on her bed".[71][j] Her death devastated Harold – "Oh Vita, I have wept buckets for you" – and his last years were not happy.[73] Giving up his Albany apartment in May 1965, he retired to Sissinghurst which he never left thereafter.[74] He died of a heart attack in his bedroom at the South Cottage on 1 May 1968.[75]

Nigel Nicolson

"Never, never, never! Au grand jamais, jamais. Never, never, never!... so long as I live no National Trust... shall have my darling. No, no. Over my corpse or my ashes, not otherwise. It is bad enough to have lost my Knole but they shan't take Sissinghurst from me. That at least is my own. They shan't, they shan't, I won't. They can't make me, I won't. They can't make me. I never would."

–Vita's reaction to the suggestion that Sissinghurst might be gifted to the National Trust.[76]

Nigel Nicolson had always been devoted to his father and admiring of his, more distant, mother[77] and preserving Sissinghurst was "an act of intense filial duty".[78] He had first raised the possibility of giving the house and garden to the National Trust in 1954 but Vita was violently opposed.[76] After her death in 1962, which saw the castle pass to Nigel, he began lengthy negotiations to seek to ensure the handover. The Trust was cautious: it felt an endowment beyond the Nicolson's means would be required,[79] and it was also unsure that the garden was of sufficient importance to warrant acceptance. Sir George Taylor, Chairman of the National Trust's Gardens Committee doubted it was "one of the great gardens of England"[80] and had to be persuaded as to its merits by Vita's close friend, and one-time lover,[81] the gardener Alvilde Lees-Milne.[80][k][l] Discussions continued until, in April 1967, the castle, garden and Sissinghurst Farm were finally accepted.[85]

Although always intending to transfer Sissinghurst to the Trust, Nigel undertook significant remodelling at the castle. Unwilling to live in four separate structures, the Big Room, the Tower, the Priest's House and the South Cottage, an inconvenience which had never troubled his parents, he built a substantial family home in the half of the entrance range that stood on the other side of the gateway from the library.[69] He died at the castle on 23 September 2004.[86]

The National Trust: 1968–2018

a flowerbed of mainly white and purple flowers against a brick wall
"Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny."[87]

The National Trust took over the whole of Sissinghurst, its garden, farm and buildings, in 1967.[80] It is among the Trust's most popular properties, receiving nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017.[88] The castle was one of the sites chosen in 2017 as a focus for the celebration of the LGBTQ history of Trust buildings.[89] In the same year, the Trust opened the South Cottage to visitors for the first time.[90] As of 2018, the gardens are open to the public daily from March to October.[91]

Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson, Nigel's son and the resident donor after the latter's death, and his wife Sarah Raven have worked to restore a form of traditional Wealden agriculture to Sissinghurst Farm, aiming to reunite the garden with its wider landscape.[92] Their efforts are recorded in Adam's 2008 book, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, which was awarded the Ondaatje Prize in 2009,[93] and in a BBC Four documentary Sissinghurst, broadcast in 2009, [94] and have generated some controversy.[95][96]

Architecture and description


Key: A - Priest's House, Erechtheum and White Garden; B - Delos; C - Top Courtyard, West Range and Purple Border; D - Entrance; E - Tower and Lower Courtyard; F - Yew Walk; G - Orchard; H - Rose Garden; I - South Cottage and Cottage Garden; J - Moat Walk and Azaleas; K - Nuttery; L - Herb Garden; M - Lime Walk

The castle and its garden are listed Grade I with many other structures within the garden having their own listings.[41]


West Range

a long range of brick buildings with a central arch
The West Range

This forms part of Sir John Baker's original house, of the 1530s.[97][m] Vita and Harold enlisted the assistance of A. R. Powys, architect and the Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to convert the northern end, formerly stables, into the library, known as the Big Room.[99] Powys provided most of the architectural input into the conversion of the buildings at Sissinghurst, including the Priest's House and South Cottage, as well as occasionally advising on elements of the design of the gardens.[100][n] The library contains a portrait of Vita from 1910 by Philip de László.[o] Vita disliked it intensely and it was kept in an attic until the Trust placed it in the Big Room after taking ownership of Sissinghurst. The room as a whole is a recreation of Knole, "Vita's record of her disinheritance".[102] The range is of brick, and of two storeys, with attics and decorated gables and chimneys. The wing to the south was converted to a family home by Nigel. The coat of arms of the Carnocks above the entrance archway was brought to Sissinghurst by Harold.[98][p] The West Range has a Grade I listing.[98]


a high tower of red brick with two pyramid roofs and a flag flying
Vita's Tower

The tower is of brick and was the entrance to the cour d'honneur of the 1560's rebuilding.[97] Of four storeys, it has recessed staircase turrets to each side, creating what the architectural historian Mark Girouard described as an "extraordinarily slender and elegant" appearance.[105] The courtyard was open on the tower side, its three facades pierced by no fewer than seven classical doorways. Girouard notes Horace Walpole's observation of 1752, "perfect and very beautiful".[106] Such an arrangement of a three-sided courtyard with a prominent gatehouse set some way in front became popular from Elizabethan times, similar examples being Rushton Hall and the original Lanhydrock.[107] The Tower was Vita's sanctum, her study was out-of-bounds to all but her dogs and a small number of guests by prior invitation.[108][q] It is maintained largely as it was at the time of her death. In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel records his discovery in the tower of the manuscript in which Vita described her affair with Violet Trefusis, and which subsequently formed the basis of the book.[110][r] The clock, below the tower parapet, was installed in 1949.[113] The Tower has a Grade I listing.[114]

Priest's House

a view of a cottage in a garden full of flowers
The Priest's House

The architectural historian John Newman suggests that this building was a "viewing pavilion or lodge".[97] Its name derives from the tradition that it was used to house a Catholic priest, the Baker family having long been Catholic adherents.[115] Harold and Vita converted the cottage to provide accommodation for Ben and Nigel, and the family kitchen and dining room. Of red brick and two storeys, the NHLE listing, which records its Grade II* status, suggests that it may have been originally attached to Sir Richard Baker's 1560's house[116] but Newman disagrees.[97]

South Cottage

This building comprised the south-east corner of the courtyard enclosure buildings.[97] It was restored by Beale & Son, builders from Tunbridge Wells, and provided Harold and Vita's, separate, bedrooms, a shared sitting room and Harold's writing room.[60] Harold's diary entry for 20 April 1933 records, "My new wing has been done. The sitting room is lovely...My bedroom, w.c. and bathroom are divine".[104] Of two storeys in red brick, with an extension dating from the 1930s, South Cottage has a Grade II* listing.[117]


a view of an arch in a pink brick wall with a path leading to a statue
An axial walk

Anne Scott-James, an early historian of the garden, set out the principles of Vita and Harold's design: "a garden of formal structure, of a private and secret nature, truly English in character, and plant[ed] with romantic profusion".[118] Harold largely undertook the design and Vita the planting. The garden is designed as a series of 'rooms', each with a different character of colour and/or theme, the enclosures being high clipped hedges and pink brick walls.[119] The rooms and 'doors' are so arranged as to offer glimpses into other parts of the garden. Vita described the overall design; "a combination of long axial walks, usually with terminal points, and the more intimate surprise of small geometrical gardens opening off them, rather as the rooms of an enormous house would open off the corridors".[118] Harold considered the garden's success was down to this "succession of privacies: the forecourt, the first arch, the main court, the tower arch, the lawn, the orchard. All a series of escapes from the world, giving the impression of cumulative escape".[120] Within some of the more formal individual gardens, flower beds were set off from paths by low clipped hedges of boxwood.[121]

"Formality is often essential to the plan of a garden but never to the arrangement of its flowers and shrubs."

William Robinson, author of The English Flower Garden and a major influence on Vita's planting style[122]

Edwin Lutyens, long-time gardening partner of Gertrude Jekyll, was a friend to both Vita and Harold, a frequent visitor to Long Barn and advised Vita regarding Sissinghurst.[123][s] Vita denied that Jekyll's work had an impact on her own designs but Nigel Nicolson described Lutyens' influence on Sissinghurst as "pervasive".[123] Fleming and Gore go further, suggesting that Vita's use of groupings of colours "followed Jekyll"; "a purple border, a cottage garden in red, orange and yellow, a walled garden pink (and) purple, a white garden, a herb garden".[125] Scott-James notes, however, that herbaceous borders, "Jekyll's speciality", were much disliked by Vita.[122] Other influencers, and friends, were the noted plantswoman Norah Lindsay,[126] their neighbour at Benenden the plant collector Collingwood Ingram[127] and Reginald Cooper, whose earlier garden at Cothay Manor in Somerset has been described as the "Sissinghurst of the West Country".[128] The historian Peter Davey places the garden at the very end of a tradition of Arts and Crafts gardening which by the 1930s, in the face of changes in "taste and economics", had almost come to its close.[129]

Vita's planting philosophy is summed up in the advice contained in one of her regular gardening columns in the Observer newspaper; "Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny".[87] The garden's most recent historian, Sarah Raven, writes of Vita's use of vertical axes, as well as the horizontal in her planting. Assisted by the number of walls still standing from the Tudor manor, and constructing more of her own, Vita remarked "I see we are going to have heaps of wall space for climbing things".[130] Old roses formed the centrepiece of Vita's planting, their history appealed to her as much as their appearance, "there is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people", and ultimately over 200 varieties were grown at Sissinghurst.[131] Vita's considerable knowledge of old roses was deepened by her friendship with Edward Bunyard, plantsman, epicure and the author of Old Garden Roses, who was a frequent visitor to Sissinghurst.[132]

masses of white planting over a pink brick wall
Wisteria on the Moat Walk

John Vass, appointed head gardener in 1939,[133] left in 1957.[134][t] Called up to the RAF in 1941, he had exhorted Vita to maintain the hedges, assuring her that everything else in the garden could be restored after the war.[138] In 1959 Vita appointed Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger as joint replacements.[139] They remained at Sissinghurst until 1991, their contributions, "as much, if not more" than Vita's, making the garden "the most admired and popular 20th-century garden in England".[140] In 2006 they were awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour for their work at Sissinghurst.[141]

The pair were followed as head gardener by Sarah Cook[142] who was succeeded by Alexis Datta.[143] In 2014, Troy Scott Smith, previously head gardener at Bodnant, was appointed the first male head gardener, apart from a stopgap, since John Vass in the 1950s.[144] He has subsequently written of the challenges of maintaining the garden "in the manner of its creator, after they have gone".[145] Scott Smith has plans to extend the flowering season at Sissinghurst beyond the autumn period established by Schwerdt and Kreutzberger into the winter months, allowing for year-round opening of the garden.[143] The gardening writer and landscape critic Tim Richardson, writing in 2015, described Scott Smith's re-making of the garden; "Sissinghurst, more than any other garden I know, inspires extremes of emotion. There is a feeling that this is Britain’s leading garden – and so, arguably, the world’s, a status that has proven to be both a great boon and an albatross around its neck". Scott Smith's plans include the reinstatement of every species of rose known to have been grown by Vita.[146] A new history of the garden was published in 2014.[147] The garden continues to exert considerable influence, being described as a "Mecca" and a "place of pilgrimage" for gardeners from around the world and encouraging many imitators.[148][149][u]

Top Courtyard and Tower Lawn

a flowerbed of purple flowers against a brick wall
The Purple Border

Entered through the archway in the West Range that had been blocked for over 100 years before Vita and Harold's arrival, the Top Courtyard is dominated by the Tower.[151] The entrance arch is covered by the climbing rose, Rosa 'Allen Chandler'.[152] Planted against a new wall constructed on ancient foundations is the Purple Border, a colour palette deliberately chosen by Vita in defiance of Gertrude Jekyll's dictum against massing purple flowers.[153] The gardening writer Tony Lord considers it "the courtyard's greatest glory".[154] The height of the Tower causes considerable turbulence which necessitates intensive staking of the plants,[155] particularly the taller specimens such as Vita’s much favoured Rosa moyesii.[156][v] On the opposite side of the Tower is the Tower Lawn, also known as the Lower Courtyard, Harold emphasising that "the English lawn is the basis of our garden design".[151] The west-east vista from the Top Courtyard through the Tower gateway, across the Tower Lawn and to the statue of Dionysus across the moat forms one of Harold's most important visual axes. It bisects the north-south axis running from the White Garden, across Tower Lawn to the Roundel in the Rose Garden.[158] In the south-western corner of the Tower Lawn is a small garden known as the Sunk Garden. This was created in 1930 as the Lion Pond, but the pond was prone to leaking and was drained in 1939.[159] Vita subsequently considered the site for planting what became the White Garden but she and Harold ultimately rejected it as too confined, shady and damp.[160] The Trust is considering reinstatement of the pool.[161][162]

White Garden

a view of a garden of white flowers with hedging and a boathouse to the right
The White Garden viewed from the Tower

"A symphony in subtle shades of white and green",[163] the White Garden is considered the "most renowned" and most influential of all of Sissinghurst's garden rooms.[164] Planned before the war, it was completed in the winter of 1949–1950.[165] Using a palette of white, silver, grey and green, it has been called "one of Vita and Harold’s most beautiful and romantic visions".[166] Vita recorded her original inspiration in a letter to Harold date 12 December 1939, "I have got what I hope will be a lovely scheme for it: all white flowers, with some clumps of very pale pink".[167][w] The concept of single colour-palette gardens had enjoyed some popularity at the end of the 19th century, but few such gardens remained when Vita drew up her plans. Influences for the White Garden are given as Hidcote and Phyllis Reiss's garden at Tintinhull, both of which Vita had seen.[169] Gertrude Jekyll had discussed the concept, but argued for varying the white palette with the use of blue, or yellow, plants, advice followed by Reiss. But neither Hidcote nor Tintinhull equals the "full-scale symphony" of the White Garden at Sissinghurst.[169] A more prosaic motivation for the colour scheme was to provide illumination for Vita and Harold as they made their way from their bedrooms at the South Cottage to the Priest's House for dinner.[170]

"For the last 40 years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation."

–Vita's reflections on Sissinghurst towards the end of her life.[147]

The focal point of the garden was originally four almond trees, encased in a canopy of the white rose, Rosa mulliganii.[171] By the 1960s, the weight of the roses had severely weakened the trees, and they were replaced with an iron arbour designed by Nigel.[172] Beneath the arbour is sited a Ming dynasty vase brought by Harold from Cairo.[173] After a hard winter following Vita's death, Hilda Murrell supplied Rosa 'Iceberg' to supplement losses.[174] In addition to R. mulliganii, other notable old roses in the garden include Madame Alfred Carrière and Princesse de Nassau.[175] A lead statue of a Vestal Virgin, cast by Toma Rosandić from the wooden original which is in the Big Room, presides over the garden. Vita intended that the statue be enveloped by a weeping pear tree Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' and the present tree was planted after her original was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1987.[176] Lord considers the White Garden "the most ambitious and successful of its time, the most entrancing of its type".[177]

A possibly apocryphal story records a visit by the colour-obsessed gardener, Christopher Lloyd, during which he is supposed to have scattered seeds of brightly coloured nasturtiums across the lawn.[178] Troy Scott Smith, the current head gardener, is undertaking a major research project on the history of the White Garden with the intention of recreating Vita's original planting scheme in its entirety. This has seen the number of plants being propagated in the Sissinghurst nursery rise from 400 to over 530.[179]

Rose Garden

a circular enclosure of green hedging surrounding a lawn
The Roundel in the Rose Garden

The Rose Garden was constructed on the site of the old kitchen garden from 1937.[180] It terminates the north-south axis running from the White Garden and concludes with a brick wall, designed by A. R. Powys and known as the Powys Wall, constructed in 1935.[19] Old garden roses, those bred before 1867, formed the heart of the garden's planting.[181] Such roses appealed to Vita for their lavish appearance, but also for their history. Rosa × centifolia and Rosa gallica, believed to have been introduced from Persia in the 7th century, and 'Félicité et Perpétue' (Jacques 1827), named after two early Christian women martyrs, were among her favourites.[182] The informal and unstructured massing of the plants was Vita's deliberate choice, and has become one of Sissinghurst's defining features.[183] Roses were supplied by, among others, Hilda Murrell of Edwin Murrell Ltd., notable rose growers in Shropshire[183], and the florist Constance Spry from her home Winkfield Place.[184] The Rose Garden is divided by the Roundel, constructed of yew hedging by Harold and Nigel in 1933.[180] As elsewhere in the garden, the Trust has replaced the original grass paths with those in stone and brick, to cope with the huge increases in visitor numbers.[185] Anne Scott-James considered the roses in the Rose Garden "one of the finest collections in the world".[186]The writer Jane Brown describes the Rose Garden, more than any other including the White, as expressing, "the essence of Vita's gardening personality, just as her writing-room enshrines her poetic ghost".[187]

Delos and Erechtheum

Delos, between the Priest's House and the courtyard wall, was the one area of the garden that neither Harold nor Vita considered a success.[188] Vita explained its origins in an article in Country Life in 1942. It was inspired by terraced ruins covered with wild flowers she had observed on the island of Delos.[177] Neither the shade nor the soil, nor its inter-relationships with other parts of the garden, have proved satisfactory, either in the Nicolson's time or subsequently.[177] The Erechtheum, named after one of the temples at the Acropolis, comprises a vine-covered loggia and was used by Vita and Harold as a place for eating outside.[164]

Cottage and Herb Gardens

a cottage built of pink brick in the middle of a garden. Spring flowers and two tall Cyprus trees stand in front of the cottage
The South Cottage from the Cottage Garden

The dominating colours in the Cottage garden are red, orange and yellow,[189] a colour scheme that both Vita and Harold claimed as their own conception. Lord considers it as much a traditional "cottage garden as Marie Antoinette was a milkmaid"[190] Here, as elsewhere, Vita was much influenced by William Robinson, a gardener she greatly admired and who had done much to popularise the concept of a cottage garden. It comprises four beds, surrounded by simple paths, with planting in colours that Vita described as of the sunset.[191] Planting includes a range of dahlias, a particular favourite of Harold's, and the red-hot poker, which he despised.[192]

The Herb Garden contains sage, thyme, hyssop, fennel and an unusual seat built around a camomile bush.[41] Known to the family as Edward the Confessor's chair, it was constructed by Copper, the Nicolson's chauffeur.[193] Originally laid out by Vita in the 1930s, the garden was revitalised by John Vass in the years immediately after the Second World War.[194] The Lion Basin in the centre of the garden was brought back by Harold and Vita from Turkey in 1914.[195] Most of the over one hundred herbs in the garden are now raised in the nurseries and planted out at appropriate times of year.[196]

Walks, the Nuttery, and the Moat

a path of grey flagstones running between an avenue of trees
Harold's Lime Walk, which he called "My Life's Work"[197]

The Lime Walk, also known as the Spring Garden, was the one part of Sissinghurst where Harold undertook the planting as well as the design.[198] He had originally intended a single axis running straight from the Rose Garden, through the Cottage Garden and then the Nuttery to the moat but the topography of the site precluded this. Instead, an angled walk was established in the mid-1930s, and substantially replanted in 1945–1962.[199] Vita was critical of the angularity of the design, comparing it to Platform 5 at Charing Cross station, but treasured it as Harold's creation. "I walked down the Spring Garden and all your little flowers tore and bit at my heart. I do love you so, Hadji.[x] It is quite simple: I do love you so. Just that."[198] The limes are pleached and the dominant plant is Euphorbia polychroma 'Major'.[201] Harold kept meticulous gardening records of his efforts in the Lime Walk from 1947 to the late 1950s[202] and, providing consolation after the end of his parliamentary career,[y] he described the walk as "My Life's Work".[197]

The Yew Walk runs parallel to the Tower Lawn. Its narrow width has been problematic and by the late 1960s, the yew hedges were dying. Extensive pruning proved successful in revitalising the avenue.[204]

The Nuttery was famed in Vita and Harold's time for its carpet of polyanthus. Harold called it "the loveliest planting scheme in the whole world".[205] By the 1960s, the plants were dying, and attempts to improve the soil did not assist. The carpet was replaced from the 1970s by a mixture of woodland flowers and grasses.[205]

a lawn with flower borders on the left and a brick wall with wisteria on the right
The Moat Walk – "the English lawn is the basis of our garden design"[151]

The Moat Walk stands on the old bowling green constructed by Sir Richard Baker in the 1560s[206] and his, reconstructed, moat wall provides the axis.[207][z] The azaleas were bought by Vita with the £100 Heinemann prize she received in 1946 for her last published poem, The Land.[206] The notable wisteria were a gift from Vita's mother, Lady Sackville, as were the six bronze vases.[207][aa] A bench designed by Lutyens terminates one end of the walk, the other focal point being the statue of Dionysus across the moat.[210] The two sides of the moat which remain from the medieval house are populated by goldfish, carp, and golden orfe.[211]


The Orchard was an unproductive area of fruit trees when Harold and Vita arrived. The unplanned layout was retained as a contrast to the formality of the majority of the garden; the fruit trees were paired with climbing roses and the area provided space for the many gifts of plants and trees they received.[212] The rose Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate', a present from Vita's friend and fellow gardener Heather Muir of Kiftsgate Court, is one example.[213] This part of the garden suffered particularly severe losses in the Great Storm of 1987 and much replanting has taken place.[214] The Orchard is the setting for two structures planned by Nigel and commissioned in memory of his father, the boathouse and the gazebo.[215] The gazebo, of 1969, is by Francis Pym and has a candlesnuffer roof intended to evoke those of Kentish oast houses.[211] The boathouse, of timber construction and with Tuscan colonnades, dates from 2002 and is by the local architectural firm Purcell Miller Tritton.[97] Nigel always felt that the only memorial at Sissinghurst failed to acknowledge his father’s contribution. The words on the plaque, affixed to the arch of Vita's Tower,[216] "Here lived V. Sackville-West who made this garden", were chosen by Harold.[217]



Photograph of white flowers in a garden. At the top, sprays of flowers hanging from branches are lit from behind. Beneath and behind those flowers are others that are in the shadows.
Rosa mulliganii (at top) grows on an arbour in the White Garden.[218]

The collection of rose varieties at Sissinghurst is considered to be extraordinary as well as to encapsulate Vita's approach to gardening.[186][187] In 1953, John Voss counted 194 distinct rose varieties on the property.[219][ab] Although the modern floribunda rose 'Iceberg' is included in the White Garden,[221] and the bright scarlet climbing hybrid tea 'Allen Chandler' is planted on each side of the entrance gate,[222] the collection focused on species roses and old garden varieties.[223] Vita described her love of the old roses by saying that one should "discard the idea that roses must be limited to certain accepted and accustomed colours, and to welcome the less familiar purples and lilacs, and the striped, flaked, mottled variations which recall the old Dutch flower-paintings; to approach them, in fact, with open and unprejudiced eyes, and also with a nose that esteems the true scent of a rose warmed by the sun."[224] She was especially fond of the bourbon roses 'Madame Isaac Péreire' and 'Madame Pierre Oger'.[225] Graham Stuart Thomas, who helped Vita locate rose varieties and advised her on the design of the Rose Garden,[183] described 'Madame Isaac Péreire' as "[p]ossibly the most powerfully fragrant of all roses",[226] and 'Madame Pierre Oger' as having a "formal perfection unique among roses".[227]

Close-up photo of a dark pink rose with a cuplike shape.
'Madame Pierre Oger' was one of Vita's favourite roses.[225]
A group of loosely-petaled white roses with a tint of pale pink, with the flowers at various stages from a closed bud to a fully open flower, green foliage behind.
'Madame Alfred Carrière' was the first rose planted by Vita.[228]
Close-up of a cup-shaped white rose with a bit of green in the center, with some pale pink rosebuds alongside.
'Madame Plantier' is grown against trees in the Orchard.[229]
Clusters of flat-petaled white roses and deep pink rosebuds with green foliage
'Félicité et Perpétue' is also grown in the Orchard.[212]

When she first visited the property, Vita came upon a form of Rosa gallica growing wild and apparently dating from earlier plantings there. She eventually planted it in the Orchard, and it is now known as the cultivar 'Sissinghurst Castle'.[230] In 1930, even before the deeds to the property had been signed, she planted the noisette rose 'Madame Alfred Carrière' on the south face of the South Cottage, making it the first rose she would plant in the gardens.[228]

In the Rose Garden itself, many roses were planted singly, but two, the bourbon 'Madame Lauriol de Barny' and the damask 'La Ville de Bruxelles', were planted closely in groups of three and allowed to grow together, providing focal points on the left and right sides, respectively, of the garden.[231]

In the White Garden, Rosa mulliganii is trained over an arbour to provide the centrepiece of the design.[218] Several varieties are trained to climb up trees in the Orchard. These include 'Albéric Barbier',[232] described by Thomas as "a great favourite" among the hybrids of Rosa wichuraiana.[233] Another is 'Félicité et Perpétue', a Rosa sempervirens hybrid that was named for the two daughters of the gardener to the Duke of Orléans in 1827, who were, in turn, named after two saints.[212] A third is the noisette 'Madame Plantier',[229] of which Vita wrote: "I go out and look at her in the moonlight: she gleams, a pear-shaped ghost, contriving to look both matronly and virginal."[234]

Named cultivars

Photograph of a small plant with tubular white flowers and green leaves spotted with white.
Pulmonaria 'Sissinghurst White'
"She walks among the loveliness she made,
Between the apple-blossom and the water –
She walks among the patterned pied brocade,
Each flower her son and every tree her daughter."

–Extract from Vita's poem The Land which was printed on the service-sheet for her funeral.[235]

Sissinghurst and Vita have given their names to several cultivars of garden plants which were developed there, notably:


  1. ^ The construction of new homes on sites adjacent to older houses was not an uncommon practice in Tudor England. Sir John’s practice was followed, for example, by the Duke of Norfolk at Kenninghall.[10]
  2. ^ An 18th painting of the castle at this time was identified as being of Sissinghurst only in 2008. Showing the house before its destruction, it is the most complete record of the house as built by Sir Richard Baker. The painting is reproduced on the inside front cover of Adam Nicolson's book, Sissinghurst: an unfinished History.[15]
  3. ^ Although her father Lionel's only child, and a Sackville twice over, through her parents being cousins and her grandfathers being brothers, the practice of inheritance solely through the male line saw Knole pass to her father's brother Charles.[25]
  4. ^ Vita consciously designed Sissinghurst without any guest accommodation, as her dislike of visitors and love of solitude came to be dominant features in her character. Nigel Nicolson recorded his mother's explanation for requiring that he and his brother share a bedroom until they went to university. "If we had a bedroom each and one of us was away Lady Colefax might find out and invite herself for the weekend."[36]
  5. ^ These were subsequently published in four volumes by Michael Joseph; In your Garden (1951), In Your Garden Again (1953), More For Your Garden (1955) and Even More for Your Garden (1958).[39]
  6. ^ In 1925, they had considered Bodiam Castle as an alternative to Long Barn. Their plan was for Vita, Harold, Ben and Nigel each to inhabit one of the four concentric towers.[53]However the price, £30,000, was well beyond their means.[54]
  7. ^ Anne Scott-James remarks that the Nicolson's relatively limited means sometimes impacted on their plans. Paths were laid from concrete cast on site, rather than from the Yorkstone slabs both would have preferred, and "most of the statues were picked up in junk shops and are without distinction".[59] Adam Nicolson describes the statues, with the exceptions of the pieces inherited from or given by Lady Sackville, as "cheap".[52]
  8. ^ Although Sissinghurst was undamaged, Knole was bombed in 1944. This prompted Vita into violent reaction. "I mind frightfully, frightfully, frightfully. I always persuade myself that I have finally torn Knole out of my heart, and then the moment anything touches it, every nerve is alive again. I cannot bear to think of Knole wounded. Those filthy Germans! Let us level every town in Germany to the ground! I shan't care."[66]
  9. ^ Ursula Codrington was Vita's secretary from 1959.[70]
  10. ^ This entry ends the published collection of Harold's diaries, an endeavour begun on 1 January 1930. Although he continued the diary until October 1964, Nigel considered the material written after Vita's death to be too personal; "His grief can be imagined but should not be laid bare."[72]
  11. ^ The Trust had, at this time, taken on relatively few gardens. Bodnant had come in 1949 and Nymans in 1954. Perhaps the most significant for Sissinghurst had been Hidcote, accepted largely at Vita's urging through her membership of the Trust's Gardens Committee.[82][83]
  12. ^ Alvide's husband, James Lees-Milne, recorded a conversation with her in his diary entry for 23 June 1972; "A. in the car said we owed more to Harold and Vita than almost any of our older, now dead friends. A. said she owed what gardening credit she now enjoys entirely to Vita who taught her all she knows. I thought of what I owed Harold."[84]
  13. ^ The National Heritage List for England gives a date of 1490, some forty years earlier.[98]
  14. ^ Powys' advice was not always welcomed. A design for a door in the Priest's House evoked a forthright response from Vita. "It's simply bloody, all studded with nails, Ye Olde Tea Shoppe with a vengeance!"[101]
  15. ^ Vita's mother, Lady Sackville asked de László, "Do you not think that you owe it to your art and to her beauty to paint her without a fee?"[102]
  16. ^ Harold's father Arthur was made 1st Baron Carnock in 1916.[103] Harold's diary entry for 20 April 1933 records, "Vita and the boys pick me up and we motor down to Sissinghurst. Arrive soon after eight. The arms are on the porch".[104] The arms are dated 1548.[97]
  17. ^ Nigel recalled that, at her death, he had only been up to Vita's tower room on about six occasions in 30 years.[109]
  18. ^ Publication of the details of Vita and Harold's marriage was controversial and Nigel sustained heavy criticism; the actor Dirk Bogarde wrote in his diary, "Just when you think it is safe to stick your head above the parapet to get a gulp of air, bang! crash! wallop! and once more one is cowed by salvoes of the dreaded V-3s, Vita, Violet and Virginia . . . Why does an elderly gentleman see fit to rake through the ashes of his parents' love and expose their very private thoughts to all and sundry, for, as Vita would have said, 'the delectation of the common herd'?"[111] Harold's biographer James Lees-Milne recorded a lunch with Nigel and a subsequent discussion with two other friends in his diary entry for 14 March 1973; "Both think Nigel ought not to cash in on his parents' love life. I am not sure. I think the book, which is going to be the book of 1973, will enhance [Vita's] ultimate reputation, though not immediately".[112]
  19. ^ Christopher Hussey records Lutyens sketching the design for the Cenotaph when at dinner with Vita on the day Lloyd George had awarded him the commission.[124]
  20. ^ The accounts of Vass's departure are conflicting. Adam Nicolson suggests that Vass and Vita disagreed about the Sissinghurst Flower Show.[135] Jane Brown and Victoria Glendinning support this, but Brown also suggests Vita's dislike of Vass's wife was a factor, although suggesting that the parting of the ways was amicable.[136] Glendinning disagrees, and suggests Vita's suspicion that Vass was a communist led to his sacking; "Well, I never loved Vass, you know. He was a convenient co-operator … but a cold-blooded animal - a lizard, dry, rustling, shooting a long tongue - and would have strung me up à la lanterne as soon as not".[137]
  21. ^ Sissinghurst has been particularly influential on garden design in the United States. One example, among many, is Hollister House Garden in Connecticut.[150]
  22. ^ Vita often employed gardening metaphors once calling her vacillating cousin Eddie Sackville-West, "as floppy as an unstaked delphinium in a gale".[157]
  23. ^ At this point, Vita was intending to construct the White Garden on the site of the, recently-drained, Lion Pond.[168]
  24. ^ "Hadji", meaning pilgrim, was Sir Arthur Nicolson's nickname for his son which Vita adopted and used throughout their marriage. Harold's nickname for Vita was "Mar", a diminutive first used by Vita's mother.[200]
  25. ^ Harold's close contemporary and sometime friend Chips Channon recorded Harold's defeat at the Croydon by-election in his diary entry for 12-14 March 1948. "Of course that nice silly Harold Nicolson was the worst candidate in living memory. How humiliating for him, though his ridiculous behaviour as the Labour Candidate cannot altogether explain the big swing-over. What can he think? He must hide his bald pink head in shame."[203]
  26. ^ Jane Brown suggests it is older, dating from the house of the de Berhams.[208]
  27. ^ The vases were part of a larger set, commissioned by Sir Richard Wallace and copied from originals at Versailles for his garden at the Château de Bagatelle. Those at Sissinghurst were inherited by Vita's mother, and others from the set are located at Lanhydrock and in the Wallace Collection.[209]
  28. ^ Voss retained an annotated copy of the Hilling's nursery catalogue from 1953. His notes recorded that 170 of the roses within it were planted at Sissinghurst and he recalled at least 24 other varieties not mentioned in the catalogue.[220]


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Further reading

See also

External links

  • Sissinghurst Castle Garden information at the National Trust
  • Blog written by the current gardeners at Sissinghurst
  • Photo essay/visual overview with plan
  • Video tour of Sissinghurst
  • Vita Sackville-West reads from her poem The Land
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